Betting on the Festival is a distinctive challenge for any punter, writes Tony Keenan. All the usual factors of going, distance, pace and form still apply and the wise gambler will stick to their tried and trusted methods but the betting landscape over these four days is quite different to the rest of the year. It makes sense to take a slightly different approach to the meeting from a betting perspective or at least to be aware of what to look out for.
- Bet bigger at the Festival
When I say punters should stake more at Cheltenham, I am not suggesting some Guinness (or insert beverage of your choice here) fuelled orgy of gambling where you half fancy a horse in the morning, really fancy it at midday after a few drinks and now that you’re completely loaded at post-time believe it is a stonewall certainty. I’m sure many punters do bet bigger at the Festival but for all the wrong reasons but the reality is that over these four days your edge will be bigger which makes larger bets a logical call.
There are a few reasons a punter’s margin is greater. Firstly, the bookmakers bet to much tighter percentages, particularly mid-morning, when they are competing for business; the over-round will be nothing like as high as it would be for the average midweek card. Furthermore, it is bad each-way heaven; not only are we getting extra places in a lot of the handicaps but the firms are betting a quarter the odds on graded races which is an excellent and underrated concession.
This is not to say that you should bet only because it is a bad each-way race as having the maths in your favour is only part of the battle. You need to have the horse too but when you find it, increasing your bet makes sense. Finally, as ever more punters are caught up in restrictions, you will by-and-large be able to get on what you like, even in those bad each-way races where you’d be chased out of the door of your local betting office any other time of the year.
- Beware information overload
Over the next fortnight, every publication will have a Cheltenham supplement, every webpage a Cheltenham microsite and every punter a Cheltenham opinion. Information will be everywhere and while too much information is never a bad thing, punters need to be aware of how to utilise this data.
The type of information we get is also unusual. There is more of what one might call ‘inside info’ than would typically be available at any other time of the racing year as we get reports of gallops, away days schooling at the racecourse, and rumours of viruses amongst other things. Some of this is valuable but most of it is too hard to quantify to be of any real worth; racecourse evidence should always be given precedence over other information types.
The ubiquitous preview nights play a big part in this information overload and there are a few things to watch for here. Much of what you will hear at them is conditioned by availability bias; Irish previews focussing on Irish horses, UK previews on UK horses, whereas the market realities suggest that the UK-based horses will win slightly more races. I think Irish punters are more susceptible to this bias, our parochialism perhaps a vestige of a colonial past and an ‘us against them’ attitude, whereas UK bettors seem well able to give the Irish runners full credit for what they have achieved.
Jockeys and trainers make up the bulk of these preview panels and bring a host of their own biases to bear on proceedings. They aren’t professional gamblers (or at least shouldn’t be!) and could rightly be asked ‘how many winners have you backed?’ (as Kevin Blake recently suggested) so their understanding of probability tends to be limited as they focus on finding the most likely winner.
With very few exceptions, jockeys won’t want to cause offence to their employers so are likely to be too kind in describing some of their rides while trainers tend to know all about their own runners but little about the opposition.
A final thing to watch out for is a developing consensus around a horse that in the words of Steve Palmer ‘will not be beaten’. The discussion of horses at preview nights tends to be direct proportion to their market dominance and a snowball effect can be created where said short-priced favourite just gets shorter and shorter as its status as a banker is constantly reaffirmed and the relative chances of the rest of the field are brushed aside. This ‘banker effect’ can create value among the rest of the field.
- Play at the right time
Part of the skill of betting is striking your bet at the right time and as much as possible you want to be getting the ceiling price that is available between now and post-time. As a general rule, if you fancy something at the front end of the market there is only one time to bet and that is between 10am and midday on the day of the race as the firms compete for business.
So if you’re intending to back something like Min, Yanworth, Thistlecrack or Ivanovich Gorbatov, hold fire as the only reason your fancy will shorten between now and then is a big withdrawal from the race and it’s impossible to plan for that.
For your bigger priced bets, sooner rather than later is the way to go especially now as the non-runner, no-bet concession is being rolled out. As I’ve mentioned above, some of the favourites are as short as they’ll ever be at this point and those at longer prices will start to shorten up.
Non-runner, no-bet is a great offer, though you do need a sizable betting tank to exploit it and be aware of which layers are offering it and which aren’t and when exactly they changed their terms. Backing a horse for more than one race can work and every now and then you can find yourself in an excellent position when the horse runs in what was perceived as the less likely target and contracts sharply in price.
Another thing to watch out for is the late switcher and punters need to be aware of the different sources where news about targets can come. The Racing Post used to be the sole source of this material but their dominance is not what it was as other outlets now break big stories. We saw this a few weeks back when the Faugheen injury was revealed on AtTheRaces and with all sorts of agencies reporting stories now, the modern punter needs to be a newshound.
Social media manages to get on top of many of these stories but because the Cheltenham markets are mature and generally robust, they can take hours and even days to react and there is a window where you can get your bet on. To develop the theme, watch for the in-meeting form boost as again the markets can be slow to react. A horse can win or run well in an early race and thus the form of something that is running later at the end of the week is endorsed and again there can be value available within a short window.